Buffalo – Michael Rea focused his microscope lens, scanning each section of a small plate, sifting through spots and smudges, looking for something. Behind him, Brent and Stephanie Pinter watched his progress on a small black tablet. The garage was quiet except for the sound of the wind.
“It’s not good,” he told the painters.
They were looking for embryos, and things weren’t going well.
Animators hired Rhea to extract as many embryos as possible from a promising young cow. If all goes according to plan, the embryos will be transferred to commercial cattle capable of resuscitating the embryos, increasing the number of genetically superior cattle animators can raise in a year — and their profits. It is an expensive and time consuming process, and it will be well worth the cost if it works.
Trixie, the young cow, had produced a handful of immature egg cells, none of which were usable. Riya was not shocked. He said that calves that had never given birth to a calf before, such as Trixie, were not good candidates for embryo transfer. However, he collects an average of seven decent embryos from every cow he works with, he said. Find nothing that was unusual. and frustrated.
If Rhea couldn’t find an embryo, it was time and money in the emigration of painters, who run Painted Cattle in Johnson County, a livestock producer. They had another option, however, a second cow that might be able to make up for Trixie’s flaws.
“Hopefully this cow will raise us to average,” Rhea said, ditching the gear he had used for the Trixie. “Or it could take us above average hopefully.”
Embryo transfer is nothing new. The first successful transfer occurred in 1890, when scientists transferred embryos between rabbits, according to a history of bovine embryo transfer published by the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Since then, this practice has expanded to include all kinds of animals: rats, mice, sheep, pigs, goats, horses. The goal is always to improve the genetic stock of the herd.
The first successful bovine embryo transfer occurred in the 1950s, but required extensive surgery. In the 1980s, scientists developed a method for non-surgical extraction and transfer of embryos, which is a safer method.
But it is still not cheap. They said it takes a month of work to prepare, and even on a small scale, the painters tried over $1,000. As of 2017, only 3% of US cattle had embryo transfers, according to the USDA.
However, the payoff can be significant. Within a short period of time, the genetic quality of the herd can be greatly improved. As well as profits.
“I mean, the sky’s the limit, really,” Brent Pinter said. “Start at $1,500 and they can sell for $10,000.”
Last year, Brent Painter traveled to Mississippi to learn how to perform an embryo transfer as part of his mission to produce the best show calf possible. This mission, which started when he started Painted Cattle in 2018, is also a passion. He said he could spend his entire day in the barn, watching the cattle and browsing the latest research on his phone. Sometimes it does.
“I want to be the producer of the calves show for Johnson County,” Pinter said. “I want to compete with the guys in Iowa who have been doing this for 30 years now.”
Embryo transfer can help him achieve this goal.
Because of the required equipment, the animator hired Rea to “rinse” the cattle he had selected as embryo transfer candidates, and to extract their embryos.
Before grooming, the cows undergo hormone therapy for a month – sometimes up to two injections a day – to stimulate “super ovulation” and the production of multiple eggs at once. Both embryo-producing cattle and embryo-receptive cattle must also be synchronized, so that they are in the same phase of the estrus cycle.
Once the cows are ready, they are artificially inseminated and after seven days they are ready for insemination. Embryos collected during cleaning can be transferred directly to recipient cows or frozen.
The painters’ intention was to transfer the freshly washed embryos into six recipient cows they had prepared. But that plan hinged on finding the embryos in the first place.
Rea wore rubber work boots and a dark blue jumpsuit with ripped sleeves. The painters’ second cow and second chance was Roxy, a large black cow that actually gave birth to a calf. Rhea started by giving anesthetic to the base of Roxy’s tail and applying an antiseptic to her buttocks. Pulling a red plastic glove to his shoulder, Rhea inserted a catheter through Roxy’s cervix and into her womb.
Ria connected two plastic tubes to the catheter. One led into an IV bag with a mixture of saline, antibacterials and surfactants (surfactants reduce surfactants). The other was emptied into a plastic pail.
The slow process of immersion and washing of the uterus has now begun. With his left arm inserted into Roxy’s rectum, Rhea massaged the uterus, waiting for it to fill with IV solution. Then, with his right hand, he changed the direction of the solution and let it flow out, down the second tube, where it would flow into the plastic pail and pass through a filter that picked up any potential embryos. The size of a cow’s embryo is about 130 microns – twice the size of a human hair.
The process of repeatedly filling and cleaning the uterus takes 20 to 30 minutes. Rhea kept his head low and his feet crossed. While he was working, the painters were watching. For the most part, the barn was silent. Rhea spoke only occasionally, muttering to Roxy, who slammed her hind legs whenever she felt him close.
Based in Billings, Montana, Rhea travels through Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and even to Nebraska, North and South Dakota to conduct cleanups and transportation. He said it keeps him busy most of the year, doing up to 20 times a week. His new little car – purchased just three days ago – was already carrying 2,500 miles when he got into the painters’ fold.
Bovine embryo transfer takes place in the Rhea family. Rhea learned how to transfer embryos from his father and spent several years in Russia. There, he said, he helped transfer up to 2,000 fetuses in just five weeks.
What it takes for an embryo transfer, Riya said, is not so much training as it is experience. This can be difficult to achieve at first, because owners want the best care for their livestock.
“It’s an investment for them, and their genetics is important. They don’t want you to practice. They want you to be good,” Rhea said. “So, fortunately, I trained there (in Russia). I am sure. I mean, I didn’t go bankrupt. “
Riya’s experience was telling him that something was wrong. While he was waiting to finish getting rid of Roxy, he discovered an anomaly in the horn of her right womb. A year ago, Roxy underwent a caesarean section during a difficult delivery. The caesarean section went well, but it is clear that during the healing process, the right side of her uterus fused into the wall of her abdomen, a condition that Rhea felt.
“It’s not good,” Rhea told the painters, as he took off his glove.
Rhea said Roxy’s left horn was fine, and it’s possible that during pregnancy, the right horn could slip away from the stomach wall. But it dramatically reduced the chance of producing usable embryos.
But there is still a chance.
Rhea returned the filter to his workplace in the garage. There, the search began again, side by side, network after network. While he was looking, the wind flew.
“Jesus,” Brent the Painter muttered, his eyes on the tablet screen and his hands in his pocket. Stephanie Pinter stood beside him, arms crossed. They were silent.
After a few minutes, Rea extracted a little of the liquid from the dish and placed it in a second, smaller Petri dish. There was research briefly and the microscope focused on six small circles.
Rhea leaned back in his chair.
They were all white. None of them were fertilized.
Riya shook his head and sighed. The painters didn’t say much.
“I’m shocked,” Brent Pinter said.
“I was so excited,” Stephanie Pinter said.
He said that just days ago, Rhea extracted 20 beautiful fetuses from a cow. The next cow he expelled gave birth to 12. The second, seven. He said it was doing well above average. Today, that has changed. He always does.
“You can always go back to medium at the end,” Rhea said.
Rhea cleaned up his workstation and put his equipment back in his pickup truck.
They said the animators still had cows ready to receive fertilized embryos, and had bought frozen embryos from other cows, so they could do that, too. Rhea carried the embryos with the choppy wind, streaks of saliva emanating from the cows’ mouths.
When he finished, Rhea shook hands with the painters.
“I hope this is better,” said Rhea, “but good luck now.”
Painter Brent nodded. “We managed to get rid of the misfortune, right?”
This wouldn’t be the end of embryo transfer for illustrators, said Brent Pinter. They have different cows that they can try next year. But it was a disappointment.
“You put in all that work to get something,” Brent Pinter said. Stop watching from afar a herd of cattle graze. He said they would try some older cows next time. They have a lot to choose from. They will try again.
He said, “Next year.”